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December 12, 2013

Into Africa

Driven by equal parts passion and ambition, young Americans are taking a career path less traveled to Rwanda, turning life experience into a world of good, almost 20 years after the genocide.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Torgovnik

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Some, like Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, are in it for the long term. As a college sophomore, she read about the genocide in The Economist. "I knew I had to go, and I'd figure it out once I got there," says Dearborn Hughes, now 29. Within a few months of arriving, she met her now-husband, Dave Hughes, a Hong Kong–raised Brit who had come to Rwanda for similar reasons. Together they started the Akilah Institute for Women, a three-year college specializing in hospitality, information technology, and entrepreneurship for young women from low-income rural communities. Ninety-seven percent of the student body are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Akilah's mission dovetails with the government's desire to grow both the tourism and technology industries, and the school works closely with several offices, including the Ministry of Education and the Workforce Development Authority, to design a curriculum based on gaps in the workforce. More than 90 percent of the first two graduating classes have secured jobs or internships. Florence Mukundwa, 29, lost 72 members of her family in the genocide and at age 9 was left to take care of three younger sisters. After completing her studies at Akilah in 2012, she started a business making clothes and accessories from local fabrics and has since hired four other women for her company. "I have told Elizabeth that what Akilah has done for me, I will do for others," says Mukundwa. "It came from being inspired by her. If she can do this, I have it in me to do it." It's these individual victories that propel the country forward. "If, after everything it has been through, Rwanda can emerge as a success story," says Dearborn Hughes, "it raises the bar for every other country on the continent."

A lofty goal, perhaps, and one that requires a commitment not just to the necessary toils—fundraising, navigating HR issues—but also to being far from home, living on meager budgets, and rarely taking a vacation. "I wouldn't want to be doing anything else," says Dearborn Hughes. "But it's 24/7." A social life requires some creativity (and lots of board games). But a movie theater opened last spring, there are Monday quiz nights at SoleLuna restaurant, doughnuts and bagels at J.Lynn's on Saturday mornings, and weekends at Lake Kivu beaches. While some have left for opportunities elsewhere (GHI cofounders Clippinger and Morrell returned to the U.S. to attend law school and finish a pediatric residency, respectively), others have made Rwanda their home. "We formed a great group of Rwandans and Americans who are trying to create change together," says Sasha Fisher. "My generation has this incredible opportunity to test out new ways to provide services to people. It is mind-blowing how much we are able to do."

Photo: With her husband, Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes started the three-year college Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali, where 97 percent of students are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

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